Glasses of wine

In Defence of Minimum Unit Pricing

Nicola Biggerstaff

A new report this week has recommended that Scotland’s Minimum Unit Pricing for alcohol be increased from 50p per unit to 65p, to adjust for inflation. The measure, introduced in May 2018, has been attributed to falling rates of alcohol harm in Scotland, but has not affected rates of alcohol addiction among those already affected. Now, with the recommendation that the price be increased for the sake of economics, is it time for us to evaluate its effectiveness as a public health measure?

Minimum Unit Pricing has been a controversial measure since its inception in 2012, the delay in its implementation until 2018 caused by legal challenges from several alcohol manufacturers, some even making their way to the EU Courts. By proving that such outcomes would not have been achievable through any devolved taxation powers or levies, Scotland’s successes with the price increases have inspired similar measures in Wales, Ireland, Armenia and Ukraine.

The rise has been suggested in an effort to meet the growing pressures driven by inflation, rather than to further curb the effects of alcohol harm. All products have become more expensive as the Cost of Living Crisis continues to pinch at our pockets. However, alcohol prices have remained much the same under Minimum Pricing, creating a false equivalence that alcohol could be considered a more regular addition to one’s budget.

Its primary aim was not to price consumers out of their favoured beverages, but rather lessen the availability of the cheaper, high-strength options which caused the most harm and were therefore more likely to lead to problem drinking in later life, such as the notorious super-strength cider Frosty Jack’s, which under the new pricing laws saw its cost jump from around £3 per bottle to over £11. Sales of similar products have since dropped by an estimated 70%, with overall alcohol sales dropping by 7% according to a study published by Newcastle University in 2021 demonstrating the effectiveness of the measure. This same study, published in the Lancet Journal has also claimed that the measure has saved 156 lives per year since its introduction, with men in the most deprived areas being most impacted. This should leave us in no doubt that it is having the intended effect on levels of alcohol abuse in Scotland, however this effectiveness may have been impacted by recent events.

As we have previously written, rates of alcohol-related harm and addiction have increased as a result of the Covid pandemic, causing an increase in deaths from alcohol-related health complications. We have previously also discussed the campaign from over 30 organisations for this increase in unit pricing, who also advocated for further marketing restrictions on the sale of alcohol following the news that, in 2021, over 1200 people died as a result of alcohol consumption, the highest number since 2008.

Minimum Unit Pricing was not created with such a shift in public health in mind, where many people in desperate situations made worse by global circumstances would turn to the easiest coping mechanism to access which, at the time, was the alcohol available in supermarkets, one of the few places we were allowed to go to in the early months. Having little impact during this time doesn’t mean it did not work, and we hope we will continue to see the benefits accumulate as the years progress.

The recommended increase to Minimum Unit Pricing means that 65p per unit of alcohol sold will go direct to the retailer, rather than into company profits or to government through taxation. Campaigners have advocated for this additional revenue be sent into a new Alcohol Harm Levy, however, the prospect of the government profiting from alcohol-related harm may not sit well with some, as was the motivation behind the concept of minimum pricing as opposed to an additional taxation on alcohol. At the moment, the additional money generated is going to the place in which it can do the least amount of harm in the consumer cycle.

While Minimum Unit Pricing has undoubtedly been an effective measure, we think more can be done to tackle the root issues that lead to alcohol harm and the consequences this has on our nation’s health.

At Common Weal, a return to a generalist approach to health would ensure that poverty is tackled as an issue of health and wellbeing, not an economic issue. By introducing measures on affordable housing, working directives as well as health and lifestyle choices, treating them all as public, social health issues and not economic issues to be resolved with tax introductions or cuts, we believe the impact on the levels of stress among less affluent communities would lead to a reduction in stress-related physical health issues, as well as mental health issues such as drug and alcohol dependency.

Getting to grips with our country’s alcohol problem is only the beginning, and we will be able to build a healthier society which puts All of Us First.

1 thought on “In Defence of Minimum Unit Pricing”

  1. Alasdair Angus Macdonald

    Alas! Our mainstream media, and particularly BBC Scotland, have sought to underplay this by focussing on a few of the data in the report or to have damned it by faint praise.

    Indeed, the findings relating to addictive consumers of alcohol is being presented as proof that the policy has failed. BBC Scotland had a large section on its web page about the death of a man who had a severe addiction problem, with vox pops from a relative implying that MUP was to blame.

    As you say, more needs to be done to deal with people who have serious alcohol addictions. As someone, both of whose parents died directly as a result of excessive alcohol consumption and whose childhood was spent in near poverty, I am well aware of the damage caused by alcohol and of the difficulty in getting people with serious addiction to change. They will lie, cheat, emotionally blackmail. They are adept at making family and friends feel that they are unsympathetic and one of the causes of their drinking.

    I support MUP and any increase required to keep pace with inflation, but I was pretty sure from its eventual inception that ‘problem’ drinkers would just devote a greater proportion of their money to sustain their alcohol consumption. But, amongst other things, fewer young people are drinking and alcohol sales and consumption have reduced significantly and those being admitted to hospital for serious alcohol problems has decreased. On the other hand we have Sandesh Gulhane MSP blaming increased numbers of deaths which can be attributed to alcohol to MUP and an unsupported assertion of unspecified other measures which could be deployed.

    The alcohol industry has been a major contributor to Tory Party funds, so I think we can see what Dr Gulhane’s motive is. The alcohol industry makes sure that Parliamentary events are well-oiled by their products. The bars at Westminster are highly subsidised. So, I do not think there will be much action from Westminster to curb alcohol consumption. I suspect if the MUP legislation had passed recently in Holyrood, Westminster would have refused to sanction it using the Single Market Act as justification.

    Looking long term, if MUP continues to cause a reduction in alcohol sales and if fewer young people start drinking, then in the medium to long term the issue should reduce. However, there are not just wider health actions to be pursued, we must also tackle the growing issues of poverty and housing. Sadly, from the Trappist Vow of silence on policies and the ruling out of any redistributive taxes, and their declaration that they are the ‘real conservatives’, I hold out no hopes of change coming from a Labour government in Westminster. Despite Commonweal’s recent niceness towards Scottish Labour and the unnamed ‘good people’ in it, Scottish Labour continues its oppositionist mode. It opposed MUP and, despite supporting the gender recognition legislation at Holyrood has been resolutely silent about Mr Jack’s action to refuse consent.

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